Josephine Corcoran reviews My Mother’s Language/La langue de ma mère by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated and introduced by André Naffis-Sahely, Poetry Translation Centre, 2021
This pocket-sized, beautifully produced dual-language (French-English) 66-page book from the Poetry Translation Centre’s World Poet Series provides a generous selection of poems from across the fifty-year writing career of Abdellatif Laâbi, widely acknowledged to be Morocco’s greatest living poet. In addition to poems that pay witness to Laâbi’s incarceration and torture as a political prisoner in the 1970s, there is a long extract from Casablanca Spleen, published in the late nineties, a poem of fragments, diary entries, notes and observations made when Laâbi returned, as a visitor from exile in France, to the country of his birth.
The title poem, in plain free verse, offers a keystone to one of the book’s concerns, namely the politics and cultural heritage embedded in language that prevail beyond the written and spoken word, in a country that has endured generations of colonial and governmental oppression. In his introduction, translator André Naffis-Sahely refers to the ‘linguistic anxiety’ experienced by those raised in countries such as Morocco, where the coloniser’s language has been imposed upon the people. The ‘language’ of the title poem, however, refers neither to Arabic or French, and the space between opposing cultures is here expressed more as resistance than anxiety, embodied in the remembered defiance of the poet’s mother. With ‘profanities, curses and gibberish’ the mother is shown taking possession of language, employing anger, humour, and creativity to refuse powerlessness in an authoritarian regime. In this way, her legacy continues beyond her death, not in the coffee cups, now broken, that she bequeathed to her son (‘they were so ugly I never mourned their loss’) but in the fact that ‘coffee’s the only drink I like.’ Similarly, the poem seems to say, language itself isn’t what matters as much as what is achieved through language:
These days, when I’m alone
I start to sound like my mother
or rather, it’s as if she were using my mouth
… all the endangered species of her sayings.
Vibrant and strong, refusing silence and passivity, the mother rebuffs any notion of stereotypical maternity. In a similar demonstration of selfhood, poems such as ‘Walking the Yard’ (presented, as in the majority here, with minimal punctuation), referencing Laâbi’s imprisonment and torture, reveal that, far from being reduced to the ‘wild beast’ or ‘gloomy horse’ his jailors might believe him to be, he rejects their subjugating gaze, imagining their own tribulations and misfortunes:
I’m even aware that those men
eyeing my every step
might even be compassionate
or at least indifferent
it’s all a question of hunger and misery
The poet’s retained humanity exposes the utter failure of his torturers’ project.
There is a change of tone in the 11-page extract from Casablanca Spleen. More contemplative and deeply moving, the poet observes the country of his birth as a visitor now in exile: ‘Amid the noise of a soulless city |I learn the hard work of returning’.
In these fragmentary poems, Laâbi as flâneur struggles to find a sense of belonging as he journeys through streets he no longer recognises. Ultimately, though, although sometimes pessimistic for his country’s future in its drift towards neoliberalism, the poet acknowledges that, in spite of its regime’s failings and brutal treatment of him and his family, he can never not belong to his homeland, just as he can never not be his mother’s son:
I call out to you
you’re now nothing but dust
I must tell you:
I’ll always be your perennial child
for growing up
is beyond me
I found this book compelling and accessible, a superb introduction to Abdellatif Laâbi’s poetry, and I welcomed the succinct introduction, and the afterword by Yousif M. Qasmiyeh that provides essential contextual background to the poems.
– Josephine Corcoran
Josephine Corcoran’s most recent poetry collection is What Are You After? (Nine Arches Press, 2018).